Thursday, May 30, 2013

China must strike harder against unapproved construction: official

China must strike harder against unapproved construction: official
By David Stanway
May 29, 2013

(Reuters) - Beijing needs to toughen up to prevent local authorities and
state-owned enterprises breaking the country's laws by building dams and
power plants without prior approval, an official with the environment
ministry said on Wednesday.

Two giant state-owned power firms, the Guodian Group and the Huaneng
Group, came under fire earlier this month after state auditors found
they had between them invested more than 60 billion yuan ($9.80 billion)
in a series of projects that had not been given the go-ahead by the
central government.

The problem underscores the difficulties Beijing faces in trying to
impose its will on growth-obsessed local governments and powerful SOEs,
especially as it tries to fulfill a promise to reverse decades of damage
done to the environment.

Wan Bentai, chief engineer with China's Ministry of Environmental
Protection, told reporters that the phenomenon of "constructing without
approval" is still rife.

"We need to strengthen our vigilance in order to ban these practices and
request local governments and enterprises to stop building these
projects until they get the go-ahead," he said.

While Wan said the situation had improved and that no central
government-run project would now be allowed to proceed before the full
approval process had been completed, experts claim corners are still cut
on a local level.

"Almost every mega project in China has been simmering at least for a
few years before it is even officially reported," said Zhou Lei, fellow
at Nanjing University, who has studied the environmental impact of big

"If you talk to anyone at the local, provincial, village level, you will
see that environmental policies are not really a restriction and that
everything is negotiable, even if it causes immediate environmental damage."


With construction times already protracted, state-owned hydropower
developers have constantly sought ways to speed up a convoluted approval
process involving local government, several ministries and the State
Council, China's cabinet.

State auditors said Huaneng's Huangdeng dam project on the Lancang river
in southwest China had begun construction without permission, with
around a third of the project built, confirming a Reuters report last year.

Last week, authorities passed an environmental impact assessment report
for the Shuangjiangkou hydropower project in southwest Sichuan province,
which will house China's tallest dam, at 314 meters. Environmentalists
have warned it could damage the local ecosystem and also increase
seismicity in a region already prone to earthquakes.

But while it still needs final cabinet approval, activists say
construction already began years ago, with a diversion canal and
temporary dam already built at the site, a gorge criss-crossed with new
roads near Sichuan's border with Tibet.

Firms normally claim that they are doing only the "preliminary
construction" required before the project is finally approved, but Wan
of the MEP said even that was a violation of state laws.

With power consumption still expected to rise by almost 50 percent in
the 2011-2015 period, power firms are under considerable pressure to
expand. Hydro developers are also expected to put an additional 70 GW of
capacity into operation over the 2011-2015 period.

Experts say the firms - in cahoots with local authorities - choose to
invest heavily in a project in the hope that they can present the
central government with a fait accompli once it finally reaches the
approval stage.

"There is no way to turn it back because they have put a lot of money
into it already to make it happen," said Zhou. ($1 = 6.1215 Chinese yuan)

(Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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